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Striped bass season to open with some boats in limbo

Joe Ruf, 45, of Babylon, catches a stripped

Joe Ruf, 45, of Babylon, catches a stripped bass on the shore of Robert Moses State Park in Babylon last year. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

New York State on Tuesday finalized rules for recreational striped bass fishing during the 2020 season, but much uncertainty remains about whether hundreds of partyboats and charterboats considered nonessential businesses will be released by the start of the season. 

The striped bass season will begin on its normal day of April 15 and continue through Dec. 15. Recreational anglers this year can take one fish a day from 28 inches to 35 inches, compared to last year’s rule of one fish at 28 inches and above. The commercial season starts May 15, and fish must be between 26 and 38 inches. The state has also reduced the maximum number of fish commercial fishermen can take to 185 from a prior 219.

The state’s rules on nonessential businesses restrict all such entities from operating through April 15, when the rules will be reexamined based on the status of the coronavirus pandemic. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said it’s still unknown whether the restriction will be lifted or extended. The agency noted that the current mid-April restriction on nonessential business "may be extended by future executive orders."

But if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s comments Tuesday are any indication, fishing boat captains may be looking at a lockdown well beyond the April 15 opening of the striped bass season.

“This is not one week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, six weeks,” Cuomo said. “This is not going to be an Easter surprise.”

The uncertainty has made life difficult for the Island’s dozens of partyboats, which can carry scores of passengers, and the hundreds of smaller charterboats.

Rob Andresen, who operates Captree Pride and Captree Princess boats out of Captree Boat Basin, said he would normally be on the water around now, fishing for cod and preparing for the flounder season. His two boats are out of the water for maintenance, but are expected to be back in over the next two weeks.

“For me, I sail year-round and I’m really feeling it,” he said. “It’s really going to kill me.”

He’d normally start booking for trips starting with the May 4 fluke season, but calls have fallen off dramatically, not just over the uncertainty over the nonessential business order, but customers’ own financial uncertainty. “The phone isn’t ringing as it usually does,” he said.

His only hope is that regulators will extend fishing seasons through the end of the year to make up for the loss of the front part of the year. That would mean leaving the fluke season open longer into the fall, he said.

For Steve Witthuhn, a charterboat captain out of Montauk who sits on the DEC’s marine advisory committee, this year’s spring season is a big question mark.

“We’re hoping for the best but we don’t know how to prepare for the worst because we don’t know how we’re going to get hit,” he said. He plans to apply for small business loans to make up for the losses.

“Everybody’s in the same boat, so to speak,” he said. “People aren’t going to have fishing as a priority. It’s coming down to food money versus fishing money.”

In the interim, he plans to continue fixing up his boat, the Top Hook, painting the bottom and “getting things ready.” For what, he’s not completely sure.

“We just don’t know” whether boats will be able to fish, he said.

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